In the market for foreign films, there has perhaps been none as acclaimed and successful as Italy. With a record 14 wins for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, amongst many other accolades and awards, the cinema of Italy has for over 80 years captivated both its native audiences and those abroad. With titles like “Bicycle Thieves”(1948) and “Rome, Open City” (1945) to directorial names like Dario Argento, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, the list of noteworthy Italian films (in a wide variety of genres, from Giallo to surrealism) is indeed an exhaustive one.
This list is but a small sampling of the many great Italian films to watch. When reading do not consider this as a list of the five best, but rather as some of the great standouts from a lengthy catalog of films. To truly discuss all the great Italian films would be too lengthy, so instead perhaps start your journey into Italian cinema with these five great masterworks of Italian moviemaking.
La Vita e’ Bella (Life is Beautiful) (1997)
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Director, screenwriter, and star Roberto Benigni’s comedic, saddening and uplifting tale of discrimination and love in the lead up to World War II, remains one of the true modern gems of Italian cinema. It’s not only witty and cleverly satirical but also moving and occasionally inspirational. While it may certainly sugarcoat some of the harsh realities of the War and the concentration camps, it is as Roger Ebert said: “not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit”. And does the endurance of that human spirit ever shine!
Benigni plays Guido, an Italian Jew with an irresistible love of life and a contagious charm. With the approaching war threatening his wife, young son and all he holds dear, Guido must use all the charms in his arsenal to mask the horrors around him not just to protect the innocence of his boy but to perhaps salvage his own sanity.
Featuring a masterful performance from Benigni (he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the first male to win for a foreign film, and only the third person overall),and a charming and beautiful score from Nicola Piovani (also winner of an Oscar for Best Original Score), Life is Beautiful is a reaffirmation that a belief in goodness and love can guide you through the truly darkest hours. Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie once again proved that amongst the foreign market Italy is one of the great beacons of cinematic storytelling. In the canon of great Italian films, Life is Beautiful is surely one of the greats and a rewarding cathartic experience.
Il Postino (1994)
Directed by Michael Radford
Il Postino was profiled in our “Love like the Movies” feature, so to not repeat what has already been written, all we can say is the film is a true testament to the power of love and literature. It’s not only a feel good movie but a simultaneously deeply intelligent film. Not only can love transform us but so can the written word. In fact, the transformative effect love and poetry have on our characters (and the audience as well) is beautifully developed and emotionally rewarding.
Il Postino really is a nice little movie, with beautiful vistas, music, and characters. A definite must see for movie goers of any stripe and a cherished part of Italian cinema.
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Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Another title that was profiled in “Love like the Movies”, Cinema Paradiso has rightfully earned its place as one the greatest Italian films of the late 20th century. Put simply the movie is a love letter to the movies and the magic they create. While criticized by some as being overly emotionally manipulative, there is no doubt that whether the emotions are a little over the top or not, the film is genuinely moving.
It’s grand romanticism, it’s wonderfully stirring musical score, and it’s declaration of love for the movies that move, has created in itself a deeply moving film that is a polished gem of Italian cinema.
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La Dolce Vita (1960)
Directed by Federico Fellini
When anyone asks about which Italian films they should see, the name of director Federico Fellini will always come up. Indeed as one of the indisputable masters of his craft, his films dominated the Italian film market for decades. Known for his use of surrealism, fantasy and a touch of nostalgia Fellini’s masterworks include “8,1/2” (1963), “Amarcord”(1973), and of course “La Dolce Vita”. While any of these films and his other works could be on this list, it is fair to note that not all are for the casual viewer. In fact, when the word cinephile is thrown around and the topic of film studies arise, many of Fellini’s works will be alluded to.
La Dolce Vita is not only one of his strongest films, but probably one of the more accessible to general audiences that don’t want to be intimidated by this great auteur. Despite its rather long run time of three hours, the movie presents a fascinating portrait of perceptions and dreams. What is the sweet life? Ultimately we learn that that answer varies according to who is answering it, and the path to discovering that answer can be both rewarding and terrifying. Divided into a prologue, episodes, and an epilogue La Dolce Vita is not only an essential viewing experience for any movie lover but a mandatory one for the Italian cinema.
If you had to choose only one Fellini film to fulfill your Italian ration of movies, then La Dolce Vita fits the mold exceptionally. A great flavor of the talent of Federico Fellini and a primer for his other works should one choose to view them.
Il Divo (2008)
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Italy and Italian life is often envied for the beauty of its landscapes, the charm of its inhabitants, and its celebrated art and cuisine. But while this paints an accurate portrait of tourist Italy, the daily life of Italians is like any other in the world not as picture perfect as one would assume.
The Italian political system is, for instance, one bogged down by a bloated bureaucracy, corruption on many levels, and an attitude of indifference by many politicians and citizens towards fiscal responsibility. Hence the 2008 film Il Divo, by rising directorial star Paolo Sorrentino, is a fascinating and scathing critique of not only the political malaise in Italy but of one of the country’s most infamous political leaders.
Profiling the former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who served three separate terms between 1972 and 1992, and who held a number of diverse portfolios in the Italian government, Il Divo is a tale of corruption, lies and the lust for power. Widely accused and vilified by his opponents for his supposed ties to the Mafia and his giving of bribes, Andreotti came to personify everything that was wrong with the government. In ways, he was the living embodiment of the everyday struggles for the average Italian.
Director Paolo Sorrentino has since solidified himself as one of the great stars of the future of Italian cinema, and with Il Divo made his first really great outing as a filmmaker. His subsequent film, The Great Beauty (2013) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is in itself a worthy addition to this list. But before his great Academy Awards success and his new ventures into television (The Young Pope), there were a series of progressively stronger and little-known films to his name. Il Divo is the best of his pre-Great Beauty works and a clear indication of what could be expected from this new director. And it works as a brilliant spotlight on modern Italy, its political and economic woes, and a side of the country that those living outside of it don’t see or rather don’t want to acknowledge.